Lessons in Humility

November 1st, 2009
This article is featured in the Ministry with the Poor (Nov/Dec/Jan 2009-10) issue of Circuit Rider

The day of the funeral, I was not sure what to wear. The stranger for whom I had agreed to conduct the funeral had lived in Nashville but had come from the hills of Tennessee, so I thought it might show respect to dress more conservatively than I usually do.

It is critical to show respect at funerals, especially if you are the minister. Besides the cultural difference, there was another reason I was unsure of what to wear. Before I had gone to the visitation the previous day, I had eaten sushi in the car, and after the visitation I happened to glance in the rearview mirror. It was humiliating to realize I had some seaweed from the sushi between my front teeth. If they were judging the book by its cover, mine looked poor and sloppy. Maybe they thought I was not a very successful minister anyway, since I had all this time to spend with people I had never met before. It made me wonder if they wished they had gotten a man.

The good thing about the seaweed was the fact that it had humbled me. If you're a pastor, being humbled is a great way to enter a funeral. Being reminded that we are all dust is another step on that path of humility. That path has always been central to the walk of faith, especially regarding how we are to live and die as faithful pilgrims. Finding humility is essential for a meaningful life with God. Throughout his life, Jesus taught that there is blessedness in wretchedness—that in our suffering we are set on holy ground, and in our humbling experiences we find ourselves closer to God.

When Jesus went out into the world, he began by humbling himself and the people he encountered. In the inner circle of his followers at Levi's house, he humbled all the guests. The religious authority couldn't imagine why Jesus would be eating with his disciples and a bunch of sinners. Jesus didn't defend the character of his fellow dinner guests but simply said they needed him because they were sick. It must have been sobering for his followers to hear those words.

This walk in humility is central to our faith. Fifteen hundred years ago, St. Benedict of Nursia wrote what became known as the Benedictine Rule, describing how monks could live together in holiness. He called his brothers to ascend the ladder of humility by taking twelve steps, including reverence for God; doing God's will; being obedient to others; enduring affliction; and practicing confession, contentment, self-reproach, silence, and simple speech. In the seventeenth century, priest and theologian Jeremy Taylor wrote another rule about holy living. This time the walk in humility took an additional eight steps to total twenty steps, including having a right opinion about ourselves, being people of virtue, letting go of pride, practicing contentment, not making excuses for mistakes, giving thanks for our weaknesses, and submitting to God.

When you encounter humility, it is a holy experience. There was a woman I met on a trip to Rwanda. She is a chemical engineer and manufacturing expert who left her job at a multinational chemical company and went into recovery. She came to Thistle Farms last year to serve the community and work on quality control and inventory. In everything she does, she teaches us about unconditional acceptance. When we were in the Rwandan countryside one night, traveling in a bus down a dark, two-lane highway, she suddenly said, “I hope that I find my purpose in life.” I just laughed and said, “You'd better find it quick, because this may be it.”

On that bus ride, she reminded me that our purpose is no more and no less than to love one another as ourselves. It doesn't matter if the person we are trying to love is dead or alive. It doesn't matter if the person is a family member or a stranger. Jesus speaks again and again about loving one another as ourselves. This teaching is so simple and yet so profound that letting it sink in is sometimes difficult. It humbles us. It takes losing things and people we love. It takes us tripping over our own feet. It takes the world reminding us sometimes. Sometimes it even takes having seaweed stuck in our teeth.

Becca Stevens is chaplain of St. Augustine's Chapel at Vanderbilt University, and founder and director of Magdalene, a residential community for women with a criminal history of drug abuse and prostitution. She is the author of five books. This article is excerpted from her latest, Funeral for a Stranger (Abingdon, 2009).

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